Alison Smith works to reform campaign finance by using public funds

She helped pass a campaign finance reform law in Maine where candidates qualify for public funds and are beholden only to voters.

Courtesy of YES! Magazine
Alison Smith helped to pass a Clean Elections law in Maine. 'When people asked why I was involved,' she says, 'I’d repeat over and over how if we could just break the links between money and politics, we’d begin to have a solution.'

When Alison Smith was raising her kids in a small Connecticut town, a developer illegally drained the water from a large marsh adjoining her backyard.

“Gradually it dawned on me that he’d broken the wetland regulations. I went to a town meeting and waited for someone to say something. Nobody did. So I voiced my opinions as best I could, red-faced, hesitant, and embarrassed. I found all these other people were thinking the same thing.”

Shortly afterward, Smith joined the League of Women Voters, and began working on wetland and recycling issues, first in Connecticut and then in Maine. She became a more confident activist with experience, and by the time the league asked her to help get a campaign finance reform measure on the ballot, she jumped at the chance. 

“We’ve become so used to being disgusted with elections and politicians,” says Smith. “We assume that almost anyone who gets in will be corrupt. I didn’t know whether the initiative would pass, but I didn’t want cynicism to rule my life.” 

The initiative offered a Clean Election Option, where candidates who pledged not to take private funding and who raised enough $5 contributions could receive public money to mount a competitive campaign.

Smith met with newspaper editorial boards and spoke wherever anyone would have her. “I found that as an ordinary person I had more credibility than the political professionals. When people asked why I was involved, I’d repeat over and over how if we could just break the links between money and politics, we’d begin to have a solution.” 

The initiative passed with 56 percent of the vote and changed Maine’s politics. By 2010, 80 percent of the state’s candidates were participating, and Vermont, Arizona, and Connecticut had launched similar programs.

Smith now works with a new generation of activists in Maine to defend, preserve, and strengthen Clean Elections. 

“One of the great things,” she says, “is that these reforms require citizen participation. For 10 years, Maine people have made the system work, supporting Clean Election candidates with qualifying contributions of $5. Without the pressures of fundraising, candidates put a premium on voter contact. 

"Once elected, lawmakers know that their only debt is to the voters. Although our law has come under attack, Maine people always rise to defend their Clean Election system.

“As former US senator from Maine, Ed Muskie, once said, ‘Campaign finance reform is not for the short-winded.’ ”

• Paul Loeb wrote this article for The YES! Breakthrough 15, the Winter 2012 issue of YES! Magazine. Paul is the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times

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